Letters from Lebanon

Letters from Lebanon

Getting a Foot in the Door

By Suhaila Salimpour-Khoury

Having been raised in a family of musicians and dancers, I remember imitating my mother’s every move. As I got older I started training very intensely and grew as a dancer, creating routines that were part of my greater vision of whole productions, complete with choreography and costumes. At the time I felt like I was preparing for the Middle Eastern dance Olympics, confident that when the time was right, I would be ready.

I was eighteen years old, fresh out of high school, when I began my adventure working in nightclubs. The move I was about to make seemed like the logical step towards a professional dance career. It was my fantasy to dance every night to a live Arabic band. The club I was to work at, Byblos in Westwood, was well known in the United States for bringing top Middle Eastern singers. It was the headquarters in California for Middle Eastern stars on tour, and this was my chance to be exposed to and meet all the top performers of the Middle East in person.

Suhaila Salimpour-Khoury

In my experience at Byblos I had to learn how to deal with being the only woman working with all men. The manager, owner, musicians, and most of the clientele were men. Just to make a simple request like, “I want you to play this song for me please,” I had to learn to be very soft, almost helpless, to get any cooperation. When dealing with Americans you can be up front without offending anyone with your tone of voice. It was different with Middle Easterners. I also became aware of how dancers were regarded in the social structure of the Middle East, and that really bothered me. It seemed that I was well liked in Middle Eastern circles, but it was always, “She is a nice person, for a dancer.” Was there always going to be those three words at the end, “for a dancer?” No matter how much I protested that I was a good person, it didn’t really matter, and I became discouraged and depressed.

While I was at the club, I got to know people in the Middle Eastern dance community who described the royal treatment that the stars of Oriental dance received in the Middle East and the lifestyle they led. People at Byblos used to tell me that I could do well in the Middle East, and that I could make good money. That was appealing to me because one can barely survive as an Oriental dancer in the States. I had been approached by many people to perform in the Middle East, but at eighteen I knew I was too young. I would have been eaten up by the sharks. I was afraid of getting into a situation that I didn’t understand, because when I went to work at Byblos, I felt that I was in another world. And I was only there for three hours a night! I couldn’t imagine living in their country.

After working at Byblos on and off for about eight years, I was approached with an offer from a well-respected family in Lebanon to come there to dance. They were also recommended to me by someone very reputable. Later I met the sponsor’s brother and a friend of the family while they were in Los Angeles, and I felt comfortable and secure enough to take the offer. My dream was finally becoming a reality.

It was very hard for me to make up my mind to go to Lebanon because I liked my life in the States. Even though I felt good about what I was doing here, the dance is limited in this country since it is not the dance of the culture. I had to take this opportunity to dance in the Middle East, because if I didn’t I would always wonder what it would have been like, and what my potential would have been. I wanted to know what it would be like to compete in the “big time.” I wanted to know if I could stand on my own two feet over there. That would really be a test to see if I was going in the right direction. I think that everybody who goes to the Middle East to dance has high expectations, because we hope to accomplish our most cherished artistic goals. One of the reasons I went to Lebanon was to see how far I could go, so I had very high expectations for myself.

The club was the Boulevard de Lacité in the Christian sector of the town of Junieh, between Beirut and Byblos. It was a good thing that I was able to live in a hotel, because the city didn’t always have water and electricity, and in a hotel you have a generator. The first time the electricity went out, I had just gotten to my floor in the elevator. Downstairs in the lobby they thought that I had gotten stuck, but I was able to push the door open since there wasn’t any electricity. It was pitch black, and I felt scared and vulnerable standing up in the dark. I was afraid someone was going to come up behind me, so I dropped to my knees and crawled the rest of the way to my hotel room so no one would know I was there. When I was crawling on my hands and knees, I heard running up the stairs. I thought I was being attacked and the hotel had been invaded. It was actually the men from the lobby coming to rescue me, thinking that I had gotten stuck in the elevator. The electricity went out quite often. I don’t know why. Maybe that is just another one of the problems brought on by seventeen years of war.

Some excerpts from letters I sent to my mother will give an idea of my life there:

…I have been to Beirut many times…I can tell how beautiful it used to be. It is scary to see the bombed-out city and every building has so many machine gun holes. It is so sad…

When I first arrived in Lebanon my sponsor insisted I go to see Lebanese dancers. He told me I needed to see what was out there and what the shows were like. I had been to Egypt and I had seen Egyptian dancers, but the Lebanese dancers were very different to me. I was shocked to see how hard they worked, and how complex their shows were. They were trying to be unique and different and very experimental. Although I was impressed, I was also nervous, because I realized that I was going to have to work very hard to make my mark.

…To tell you the truth, I have seen some of the best dancing here. The top dancers really move. It has inspired and pushed me to do more and grow myself. I feel it is going to be a great experience…

I was happy that I had a strong support system in Lebanon. I had become friends with many of the well-known Lebanese singers while working with them in the United States, and some of them came to visit when they heard that I was in Lebanon. I had been in one of Rageb Alameh’s first videos when he was in Los Angeles, and he was just filming a new video at the time I arrived and wanted me to be in it. The pace of my life was accelerating.

Dear Mom, I am so tired. I have been so busy shooting my own promotion for the club, plus I was in Rageb’s new video (no women dancing, so I was in a black suit looking longingly at him), plus rehearsals for a dance I am doing called “Basara” (fortune Teller) for a TV show. The Lebanese Broadcast Corporation wanted to do something “new.” Don’t you love that opening?

Anyway, they wanted me to be filmed at night on the beach in jeans and a belly dance bra, rolling around in the sand. The only problem is that it is so cold at night. I, being the pro, did what they asked, and by the end of the night I could not feel my fingers or toes. Sami was with me and rushed me to his house and threw me into the tub to thaw out. It took me a good fifteen minutes to get full circulation. Then his family fed me and I had my first taste of Lebanese wine. Ever since that night I am fighting a cold…

The dancers in the Middle East always have this queenly air about them. Of course, when I go out on stage, I put on my make up and create the image, but when I showed up for rehearsal in sweat pants, without any makeup and looking very non-threatening, they were surprised. The management advised me to keep up the glamorous image when I was off stage during the day. It was good advice, because it commanded respect as soon as I walked out of the door.

…I got the package with my clothes yesterday. Thank you so much for sending them. I must dress up every day. Because it is such a small country and Oriental dance (no one says belly dance) is one of the biggest draws for the people, I must remember that I will be known very fast all over the country. The Lebanese Broadcasting Company has 80% of the country’s viewers. I have to act like I am famous. I am even growing my nails and keeping them polished.

I was told to lose ten pounds when I arrived in Lebanon. I was shocked! In the States I was usually told that I was too thin and that I should put on weight. The costumes tend to be very leggy in Lebanon, and you do not have to wear a body stocking. But I never saw a dancer with bare feet. High heels are a must. The standard shoe wear for the Oriental dancer was a three-inch heel pump. They all wear them. Nadia Gamal, who wore high heels most of the time, has been a very powerful influence on Lebanese dancers, and most of the dancers I saw there copied her format. I asked if I could skip the shoe part and just dance barefoot. They explained to me that in Lebanon people feel that it is low class and dirty to show your feet. They feel that it is elegant and classy for the dancer to wear heels. I spent every night soaking my feet in the bidet in my bathroom because of my numerous blisters. I had to learn how to dance all over again.

I was really surprised to be so well cared for; I wasn’t expecting it at all, but to them it is a given. Never before had I had costume designers and choreographers helping me. I wasn’t used to costume designers coming up to me with swatches of material. After I picked what I wanted, he would say, “Thank you,” and walk away. It wasn’t that I was just coming in with my bag of costumes and going to dance and leave. We were all building a real show. We had six weeks of rehearsals during Ramadan to prepare for the opening of the season.

Even though I was very well taken care of, life was not without its challenges. In spite of all the attention lavished on me, I experienced the expected culture shock and missed things familiar.

…The loneliness is so powerful. I am so emotional all the time. A little thing can bring on my tears. Each day gets better creatively and worse in my loneliness. I am exhausted from having to be so alert. I am just beginning my journey…

Choreographer Sami Khoury, the lead dancer with Caracalla Dance Company, a well-known Lebanese folkloric troupe, was hired to work with me to help me develop a certain Lebanese style: They wanted me to be able to mix in more with their type of dance, and to make sure that I didn’t do anything that was going to be offensive. There are certain little ways that you have to act. We rehearsed up to eight hours a day from one o’clock in the afternoon until nine in the evening. I was encouraged to work very hard.

…What I am going through is really wild! My choreographer is so dramatic and really a nut! I really like him. He is very hard on me and pulling a lot out of me. Each day I get stronger.

Sami also handled my band. When the fifteen piece orchestra showed up on the first day of rehearsal, I was waiting for them to start playing my music. He came backstage and asked me what was wrong. I looked at him very confused and said that I was waiting for them to begin. He laughed and told me that the band waits for the dancer, not the other way around.

The musicians were very skeptical of me at first. I was very nervous to work with them because I was a foreigner and wanted them to respect me. At the beginning they were not giving me the time of day. My drummer had been famous for working with Nadia Gamal. I was really nervous because how can anybody satisfy a drummer after working with somebody like that? When I asked the drummer if we could do a cymbal/drum solo, he looked really irritated and frustrated with me like, “Oh boy, I knew this was going to happen.” But he finally relented when I begged him to just give it a try. He would play something, and I would answer him with my cymbals, and we went at it for a half an hour! After that, the band wanted me to play cymbals through the whole show because they felt it was an addition, that I was actually a band member. So we worked out a deal where we did one number with cymbals and one without. They thought it was such a feat because the dancers in Lebanon don’t play cymbals any more, except in a limited way for brief sections. I had to win them over, but they soon saw that I was serious about what I was doing. Once they realized that I respected their art and culture, they began to show respect for me.

My rehearsals were always private. No one but the band, the manager and the owner were allowed to watch. But once in a while the owner would bring a friend with him. When I was introduced, the first thing I was often told was that my nickname on the streets was “The Bomb.” What they meant was that my appearance on the dance scene was “explosive.”

…My picture is up on billboards all over the country, plus posters, plus commercials. The man that I work for is making me a big star so it promotes his clubs…Artistically and spiritually I am in heaven. Everyone has such high hopes for me. I will be competing with the top dancers in Lebanon…

There is a high level of artistic freedom in Lebanon, and I did not feel that my style of dance stood out as being different, or that I had to conform. A dancer there can do anything as long as it is done well and the audience responds. The audiences seemed very interested in being entertained on any level. When the other people involved in the show found out that I could tap dance, they were dying for me to do a drum solo tap dance! It was their idea, not mine! They felt that when the audience saw the variety in my show they would go crazy. My imagination was going wild, because I knew that no matter what I did, they were open to being entertained. One of the top dancers in Lebanon was including tango, samba, and lambada in the middle of her show. They loved it! Another dancer included ballroom dancing in her show. This kind of variety is not new to the Middle East. Naima Akef, the favorite dancer of Abdel Gamel Nasser, did the samba, flamenco, and tap-danced in addition to her hot cabaret and beledi routines. For a finale, she was known to jump into the air and land in the splits. She was featured in many Egyptian films, and was considered to be the Rita Hayworth of Egypt. With long shows, it is necessary to be creative.

Some parts of my show were going to be soft and other parts aggressive and kind of jazzy. My show was to be two hours long, with three different costume changes and three different moods. The first section was very modern, typical of what we call cabaret style.

…We are opening the show with a very high-energy modern style dance, mixing Orientale and jazz together. First my opening, then a nai solo for my floor work (splits and back bends), then I dance to “Maddah Al Amar.” Very dramatic piece, full of many changes. Then I change costumes while the folk group dances and one of the two singers sings. My second act is “Old Style”; slow, gooey movements, no jazz, just heavy hip work. My last piece in the second act is “Ana Finte Zarik.” Of course I will just stand in one place and vibrate. Then I change costumes again and do beledi with a cane, two male backup dancers with big sticks and a tabl beledi drum. I must go down into the audience for that section, no option. Then I go back onto the stage, right into the drum solo. I will be doing a finger cymbal/drum solo…I hope you can imagine my show…

In the Middle East this last section is what they call tribal or ethnic. Dancers typically come out to a tabl beledi drum and dance to old songs such as “Ya Ain Moolay Etan,” and go into the audience and dance around the tables. The audience will most likely not get up and dance with the dancer, but they like to feel that the dancer is coming down to see them to say hello. If someone does get up and dance, it is best to try to slowly move on because you do not want to create a riot with everyone dancing. The drummer offers some protection as he follows along beside you.

March 12, 1994

Dear Mom…I will dance tonight. It is such a strange feeling. I have been in Lebanon for six weeks already. Now I have to do my stuff. I think I am ready. The strange part is that I am so nervous. I guess I feel that this trip is so important to my career that I want to do my best…I need a vacation and I haven’t even started yet!

Six weeks after my opening, the club owner was offered a lot of money to rent the club out for two weeks to producers who were filming a TV series for the Gulf. It was to be a three-day telethon featuring many top Middle Eastern singers, and I was invited to be in one of the segments.

… Since that part of the world is so, you know what, there are no women allowed to dance. So, the only thing to do is to dance all covered in black with only our eyes showing. I am the lead and there are three backup girls. Well, kind of—one of the girls can’t do it so one of the boys from a famous dance company is doing it. Because only our eyes are showing, no one will know…

My part was one of the first to be taped, and when it was finished the owner suggested that I return to the States to visit my mom while they filmed the rest of the series. I eagerly agreed as I was tired and homesick.

While I was home I received another offer that I couldn’t refuse: a proposal of marriage from Andre Khoury, whom I had been close to since we were children. I could stay in Lebanon and work, but I couldn’t expect that Andre would still be available when I returned. He would already have married, and all I would have to show for my time would be a shoebox full of photos and videos. I realized that I wanted a home and family life with Andre.

It is very hard to come back to working in the clubs in America after having experienced what dance can be like in the Middle East. They were so good to me in Lebanon! I had my own dressing room, and I was catered to one hundred percent. If I asked for a bottle of water, they would have a whole case brought to me. It made me feel very good about what I was doing. I felt appreciated, and was treated the way a dancer should be treated. And the appreciation was also expressed financially, and I felt for the first time that I was compensated fairly for my hard work.

Stars in the Middle East are not the opening act for a singer, like we are in the States. Dancers here are mostly thought of as a flavoring of the evening, but are not really featured. We are not appreciated here in the same way, because the dancer does not make or break the club. The stars in the Middle East are the moneymakers for the clubs, and are very much respected and treated well in the entertainment industry. Dancers are on billboards and in commercials. They are cultural icons.

Even though I had had a wonderful experience working at Byblos, after returning from Lebanon I knew that I could not do that again. I have stopped working in nightclubs in America, and have formed a dance company in order to create a show, like my Lebanese experience—a complete show! Most dancers who work in clubs can’t have a full show because the protocol is to come out in one costume, do your set, and that’s it. You are lucky if once a year they change the opening piece of music. Now I don’t enjoy working unless I feel I am being creative.

I was, of course, hoping to hold my own in the Middle East. But what I want to share with belly dancers around the world is that as a dance community, we should not label ourselves. We have to remember that there are many styles of belly dance and we have to respect each interpretation. We all have innovative and creative ideas, and we are all trying to put them out there. And, like any art, some things will be well received and others will not. But that doesn’t mean that you should stop growing or trying. We should be open-minded about our visions—the Lebanese are.

Suhaila Salimpour-Khoury is the daughter of one of the most influential pioneers of Middle Eastern dance in the United States, Jamila Salimpour (see “Shaping a Legacy: A New Generation in the Old Tradition, by Shareen el Safy, Habibi, Vol. 13, No. 4). Suhaila and Andre have since married, and are recently the proud parents of Isabella Antoinette Khoury, born May 18, 1998. Isabella’s middle name comes from Andre’s mother, Antoinette Awayshak, another prominent figure in the early history of Oriental dance in the U.S. (see “Antoinette Awayshak: and ‘La Belle Epoch,’” by Jamila Salimpour, in Habibi, Vol. 13, No. 3). www.suhailainternational.com

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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